Europa League provides new chapter in Seville derby

Betis' defender Caro (L) vies with Sevilla's forward Jose Antonio Reyes.

SEVILLE, Spain — Thursday’s Europa League last-32 second-leg between Real Betis and Sevilla might be coming in under the radar in most around the world but here, in the Andalusian city of Seville, they have been talking about little else.

This is the seventh city derby€™ in European soccer competition, if we’€™re ranking them by power. But that understates the importance of rivalry, which is fierce, heated and deeply meaningful in this small city.

The sun-scorched regional capital of Seville has a population of just 700,000 and is mostly known for its medieval architecture, gypsy dances and launching Christopher Columbus on his way to discover the New World. It is also a hotbed of soccer: Sevilla and Betis share 80,000 paid-up season tickets equally between them, and almost a century of rivalry. Sevilla won two UEFA Cups in 2006 and 2007, but although Betis has been to the Segunda Division as recently as three seasons ago, the historical ‘derbi’€™ record is pretty tight [48-34 to Sevilla with 26 draws].

And, the two clubs share plenty off the pitch too. Sevilla’s ex-president Jose Maria Del Nido resigned in December after being sentenced to seven years in prison for embezzling public funds. Betis’€™ former owner Manuel Ruiz de Lopera could follow him to jail as he has been charged with unlawfully taking 17 million euros out of the club between 1999 and 2008.

Unsurprisingly both clubs have paid for having such chancers in charge, and last summer saw the exit of stars on each side — including Spain internationals Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas, West Ham keeper Adrian and Swansea midfielder Jose Canas.

All the changes mean both teams look mostly to Europe for excitement this season. Sevilla is stuck in seventh spot, while an awful start has seen Betis struggle all year. New coach Gabriel Calderon — the third in three months — has steadied the ship in recent weeks, and they are now unbeaten in five games in all competitions, but an escape from relegation still looks a tough ask.

That’s why, even despite the hype ahead of the first leg at Sevilla’€™s Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan, there was also the feeling of a foregone conclusion. Outsiders Betis had lost 5-1 and 4-0 on their last two visits here, but Betis shocked even themselves with a 2-0 away win, and now Thursday’s second leg at Betis’€™ 55,000-seat Estadio Benito Villamarin (live, FOX Sports 2, 4 p.m. ET) gives La Liga’€™s bottom side a real chance to reach the last 16 of the Europa League for the first time. It could also claim a memorable win over its more illustrious local rival, a victory that would long be sung about along the banks of the river Guadalquivir.

Sevilla  — the Betis first leg goal-scorer who manages to share a surname with its local rivals] said this week that progression would be the perfect birthday gift.

"There have been some good moments, and some not so good,"€ the just-turned 30-year old midfielder said. "We have been suffering so much this season. But this is a club with a lot of greatness. My best present would be to go through on Thursday."

Unai Emery’s side is also — despite its first leg shock — on an upward swing. Sevilla has won on five of its last six outings, and warmed up last weekend with a 4-1 home win over Real Valladolid in La Liga.

LEND US YOUR EARS!

Midfielder Marko Marin [on loan from Chelsea] said the support of fans during that game had lifted belief around the squad that the 2-0 result could be overturned.

"The fans’ singing has made us believe in a comeback," the Germany international said. "There is no player or fan who does not believe this is possible. Sevilla is a great club, not just in Spain, but in Europe."

The two coaches nurse selection headaches ahead of the game after Sevilla midfielder Sebastian Cristoforo and Betis left back Didac Vila both picked up season-ending injuries last weekend. Calderon may field a five-man defense to protect his team’s advantage, with Emery more likely to bring playmaker Ivan Rakitic deeper so he can play two center-forwards in Kevin Gameiro and Carlos Bacca as he chases a win by two goals at least.

Most important will be the attitude and approach of the players. Betis has a well-known tendency to mess up promising situations. In 1977-78 it knocked Italian giants AC Milan out of the Cup Winners Cup, in one of the most famous nights in the club’s history, but was relegated at the end of the season. No matter what happens in La Liga, eliminating its neighbors would provide a lasting memory in what has been an awful campaign.

Meanwhile Sevilla fans pride themselves on a never give up spirit. It has nothing to lose at this point, and on paper has the more talented and experienced XI. Whatever happens this will be a game long remembered by both sides of the city.